What started as a plan to diversify their property, is now a blooming cottage industry for a Mid Canterbury couple.
A fortuitous lunch about nine years ago with a good friend and fellow peony grower set the seed for Simon and Nicky Eddington’s foray into growing peonies. ‘It’s turned out to be a very expensive lunch looking back now,’ laughs Nicky.
“They were selling their peonies as they were moving into dairying. We looked seriously at it.” But back then the timing wasn’t right with Nicky having just moved her beauty therapy business, Revive on Oakview, home to their 13ha block on Longbeach Road. Two and a half years ago, the same friend bought it up again as the peony tubers were back on the market. And this time, they took the plunge.
“We felt like we needed to do something more with our land, and peonies seemed like a good fit. The people that had first bought them (nine years ago) were keen to sell. I talked to Simon and three weeks later we were digging them out,” says Nicky.
Peonies have been cultivated for more than 2000 years as ornamental and medicinal plants. They are native to central and eastern Asia, gaining the nickname ’king of flowers’. Since the 1980s, New Zealand-grown peonies have developed a strong worldwide reputation for being quality, top-grade flowers with markets in the United States, Middle East, Asia and Australia.
Picked in bud and packed in chillers where they stay tight and round for up to six weeks, they are the perfect export flowers. The large and flamboyant flowers open up within hours of putting them in a warmer spot. They’re are often used in hotels and for conferences, weddings and grand occasions.
Essentially, they are pretty hardy and relatively easy care, explains Simon. Happy peonies like a cold winter (frosts) and no humidity, fertiliser in the spring and autumn, and free-draining soil with good shelter to protect them from the wind.
While Nicky and Simon had done their homework and identified the most suitable paddock to plant them, there was still lots to learn, admits Nicky. “It all happened very quickly. I don’t think we realised the full extent of the hard work that was ahead of us.”
But getting them in the ground was the first hurdle. They were working to a tight timeframe. Once they got the peony tubers home, the Eddington’s divided them up ready for planting, but the weather went against them. “It started raining just as we got them out. It got that wet that we couldn’t get on the paddock. We didn’t know what we were doing. We knew we just had to get them in, that was the hard part,” says Simon.
While they were waiting for a break in the weather, Simon divided the paddock up into 50m rows, 1.3m apart, marked out with an electric fence tape, and then started the laborious task of digging each and every hole by hand. Although fellow growers had given them all kinds of different effective ways of planting the tubers, after much deliberation, the old-fashioned way won out. It was back-breaking work; made lighter when they employed their son Sam’s rugby team to do it as a fundraiser.
“We should have done that at the start,” says Nicky. “They dug the holes and then we did the planting. It still took us about two weeks to get them all in. We could only do about two to three rows at a time being careful to get them at just the right depth – no more than two inches above the eye of the tuber.”
These first few years have been a huge learning curve. The Eddington’s have been indebted to the help they received from the New Zealand Paeony Society, which was formed by growers across the South Island back in 1988. “They have been an absolute blessing,” says Nicky. “They’ve been so open, helpful, encouraging and forthcoming with information. There’s a big variation in growers, from those growing 1000 to those growing 60,000. We really couldn’t have done it without the help from those that are already growing them.”
Since planting 4500 peony tubers in June 2017, Nicky and Simon have been playing a waiting game. It takes three years for the plants to mature and become commercially viable. This spring was their first year picking commercially, using a converted shed as a packing facility. “I don’t think anything could have prepared us for it,” says Nicky. Harvest was frenetic. From October to early this month (December) it was full-on. Nicky and Simon have been out there picking day-in-day-out, seven days a week, rain or shine. With the help of their children, Sam (who is at university) and Alice (a primary school teacher), they have managed this year. Next year will be a different story. The Eddington’s grow seven different varieties, including Coral Sunset (New Zealand grows the most Coral Sunset in the world), Coral Charm, Red Charm, Bridal Shower, Bowl of Cream, and Paula Fey, all of which flower at different stages over the six to eight week period.
One of the best pieces advice Nicky received early on was to focus on getting the picked stems off the paddock and straight in the chiller at 1-2 degrees, rather than worrying about grading and processing them on the spot. “That certainly took the pressure off,” she says. “The key is getting the field heat out of them to delay the progression to bloom.”
Once they have been chilled for 24 hours, stripped and cut to specific lengths, bunched and boxed, the peonies are ready. While the Eddington’s had sold a lot locally this year in roadside stalls, they have also experimented with selling their crop through the auction system in Auckland and sent some for export.
“This year has only been a practice run,” says Nicky. “It has been a massive learning curve for us, finding out when to pick them and making sure that they don’t open straight away. For export, they have to be cut a little harder, so they last longer. Grading is done visually, you can kind of see it, but you can do it by feel. After a while, you get to know. The feedback we have received about our peonies has been positive.”
Tempting as it may be to cut every viable stem, she says it’s important to make sure at least a few stems are left on each plant to allow the starches to go back into the roots nourishing it for the next growing and blooming season (photosynthesis), and that’s even more important while the plants mature.
It will take about five years until the Eddington’s crop would be in full production. “Each plant can produce 10-15 stems in full production, whereas at the moment we are really only picking two stems off each plant,” Nicky explains.
While harvest time was full-on, for the rest of the year the peonies required little work. “Weed control is our biggest issue,” Simon says. “They don’t like competition. Keeping the weeds down also keeps the bugs away. The first year we tried quite hard with the weeds. The second year we didn’t bother because we weren’t cutting the flowers. This year we have managed to keep on top of them. But it will never be perfect.”
To ensure their soil health is optimal for peak production they have sought outside help, with regards to fungicides, herbicides and fertiliser. We aim to limit the amount of spray used, he says. “We are learning what will affect the peonies and what won’t. We want to keep spraying to a bare minimum.”
After flowering, the plants are left to die down completely before the paddock is mown, sometimes assisted by four-legged pruners. The biggest risk is Botrytis (grey mould). It causes blackening of the leaves, and patches of stem rot, often just at or below ground level. It can over winter on the dead peony leaves, stems and roots. The easiest control is cutting down the plant tops to ground level and removing or burning the foliage.
Like any other crop, the weather can play a big part. Their biggest threats, says Simon, would be a frost when the buds are the size of a small fingernail or a hailstorm before the intense six-week harvest. There would be no saving those fat, vulnerable buds, spread outdoors over half a hectare. But although some peony crops are covered, it wasn’t something the Eddington’s had considered.
Having no background in horticulture, their operation has very much been about learning from trial and error. They’ve had to dig deep to hone their skills. “It’s always scary when you do something for the first time. But once we got it in our heads that it was okay for us just to feel our way, it was okay. We have already learnt so much. Like anything though, until you really experience it, you really don’t get it. We have a book of what not to do for next year, but it’s going to be about time and practice,” says Nicky.
Looking ahead to next year, the Eddington’s are hopeful more of their crop will go for export, but they’re realistic. It will be some time yet before the business is in the black. “It will be five to six years before we start seeing any real money out of it. A lot of time and money has gone into it to get to this point,” explains Nicky.
It’s been a great journey to date, and Nicky and Simon and excited about what lies ahead. The peonies have added another string to their already busy bow. Alongside the peony business, Nicky also runs her beauty therapy business, Revive on Oakview, from home as well as a boutique accommodation business on the property. Meanwhile, Simon splits his time working as a stud stock representative for PGGW, while also grazing a few cattle, finishing lambs and running a small flock of ewes and lambs.
It makes for a busy time, especially during peony harvest from October to December. “But when you are walking through the flowers and picking them on a beautiful day, it doesn’t get much better,” says Nicky.